The most magical day of travel- visiting the Great Wall of China

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It is a rare occurrence, but sometimes in life you do and experience something amazing. The day we went to the Great Wall, someone was either looking down on us and smiling or we were randomly dealt an optimal set of circumstances. Either way, you know something is special when hours later, you are still smiling from ear to ear.

Our day started relatively uneventful. We ate a big breakfast (which in hindsight was a very good idea, but at the time felt over-indulgent). I devoured my way through frosted flakes, yoghurt, breakfast tea, white toast, mushrooms, hash browns and 2 lots of scrambled eggs whilst my friend had similar (except with bacon and sausage instead of the veggie alternatives). Before we could set off for the Great Wall, we had to sort our transport out for Xi’an, where we were headed the next day. We booked train tickets and waited for a taxi to take us the hour and a half distance to the Great Wall.

Our cab driver was awesome- despite speaking only in Mandarin and me not understanding a word (as was typical of our China travels, my travel companion was incredible in that he speaks and understands are fair amount of Mandarin), he was so friendly, smiley and helpful. The journey to the Great Wall took an hour and a half and we were very excited when we arrived! We were seeing the Great Wall from the Mutianyu Great Wall, located in the Huairou District of Beijing. Upon arrival, our eyes met a large wooden sign baring the name of that part of the Great Wall. We meandered through the shops, cafes and restaurants that line the way to the coach station. Once there, we travelled uphill in a bus (for about 5 minutes) before arriving at another point where we were due to get the cable car from. We clambered up hill, in positive spirits but already exerting a good amount of energy.

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The signs marking “The Great Wall Culture Exhibition Center” and “Mutianyu”.

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The walkway to the coach station

Having completed the steep climb to the cable car station, we stepped into the deep red capsule and we were hoisted uphill towards the great wall. I tried to make conversation with my travel companion (who was suffering from vertigo but had decided the best way to combat it was to frequently face heights- he’s cool like that) and got our first glimpse of the Great Wall, a beige stretch of stone extended along the hill top.

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Our first glimpses of the Great Wall

We arrived at the cable car terminal at the top and walked straight then left, climbing some stairs before we saw a viewing deck. From here, we climbed again and found a stone statue/plaque, marking the Great Wall.

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A sign pointing us in the right direction                 Getting closer to the Great Wall

Through a little arch, we reached the flat ground of the wall itself. And it was spectacular; to the left, we saw trees, hills and in the far distance, an urbanized area. The sun was shining bright against a bright blue sky and to the left, a natural untouched landscape drew the eye- abundant with more hills and gravelly floor.

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Our tourist moments…

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The sun and the moon… on opposing sides of the Great Wall

And we walked and walked, across flat land, slight inclines, steeper hills with steps. Through majestic viewing towers, dark inside but for the burst of natural right that tore through the archway and offered some beautiful views.

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The inside of one such viewing tower

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The wall in all it’s glory

Since we had arrived so late (at 15.30, and the Great Wall shuts at 17.30), we knew there would be a point where we had to turn around. We got to a very steep looking high point on the wall. My friend said “maybe we should climb it?”, and after the realisation that I’d probably only get to do this once in my life, I readily agreed.

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The little square in the lower-middle part of the picture was where we started our climb from

We started to climb the steps, high in volume (numerically) but narrow in width. About halfway up I felt my breath going in shorter bursts. My friend was starting to suffer from Vertigo again. The Great Wall had emptied because it was getting late. But we climbed onwards, reliant on each other for support. The sun had faded a bit now, sunset was approaching, leisurely creeping across the sky. We were confronted with some steeper steps that were shorter in width and so I took the lead at this point of the climb. And eventually we reached the platform we were aiming for, at the pinnacle of the steep ascension.

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WE MADE IT!!!                                                    The sign saying “no tourist section past this point”

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One of the climbers we met climbing back down

I don’t know if it was too much to call the moment euphoric. It felt close. We had reached a point which no tourists were allowed beyond. The wall was now silent aside from us and we met some qualified climbers (in jackets and climbing boots) who had descended from beyond the “no tourists allowed” point. They seemed really impressed that we had made it up to where we were, and were incredibly smiley. The ease with which they skipped back down the slope and onto the flatter parts of the wall was impressive.

Knowing that (at least amongst this expanse of wall) there were just the four of us, a stunning sky, the stonework of the masterpiece that is the Great Wall and the sun winding down on one side of the wall whilst the moon started to glow on the other, was unbelievable. We were just happy.

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Pictures of the Great Wall at sunset

On the climb back down. Happy. A smile stretched across our faces. When we almost got stuck in a cable car because it was 17.30 and the guy who operated the cars thought all the visitors would have left by now (thank goodness for shouting)- still happy.

Because you travel for moments like this. I couldn’t begin to imagine what I’d feel on the Great Wall. And what I did eventually feel was akin to something magical (corny yes, but true). This was a highlight of globe-trotting. This was what reaffirmed to me that getting out there for a few months instead of heading straight into work or doing a masters was worth it. We returned to where we were staying and ate a ridiculous amount of food. The next day we would be heading onto Xi’an in China, just in time to celebrate my travel companion’s 22nd birthday.

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Amazing Arashiyama: the day that put a permanent smile on my face

Located on the Western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is a beautiful scenic area, with some cute and inviting shops and restaurants, the magnificent Bamboo Groves and the ornate Path of Kimonos. Apparently there is also a romantic train, but needless to say my best friend and I were not particularly interested in that! From what is written on paper, Arashiyama seems like the perfect tourist destination but what really elevates it from just another attraction to something really charming is the ambience; amongst the sea of tourists are a good number of locals with ready smiles on their faces. School children weave in between us at the end of their day, queuing for street food and chatting animatedly. And any right turn from the main stretch leads to the more residential areas lined with houses (some of which have the most beautiful front gardens- there is a sense of pride in the way the owners are treating where they live).

But Arashiyama doesn’t deserve a brief description, or a rough bullet pointed list of what makes the place a good attraction to visit, so I’m now going to go into more depth about what we did, and why we enjoyed it. After lunch at Apprivoiser again (with it only 3 minutes’ walk away from our hotel, it was too convenient and the food was too tasty for us not to make a return visit), we walked to Kawaramachi Station (in downtown Kyoto) and got the Hankyu Kyoto Line towards Umeda, disembarking at Katsura station. I’m pretty sure the station name has some anime reference, since my travel companion stopped to snapchat the station name, but I unfortunately have no idea what it is 🙂

We then got the Hankyu Arashiyama line to Arashiyama itself (note that there are multiple ways to get here, you can also take the a line to a different Arashiyama station, nearer to the Bamboo Path). Where we disembarked, we were only 5 minutes walk from the park and we greeted by bright sunshine and blue skies. So after removing the thick jacket and the thinner jacket I’d worn after a cold start that morning, we trundled merrily towards the park (I’ve no idea why I’ve used the word trundled, I think I just like how it rolls off the tongue).

Walking through the park was a joy; the Oi River glistened from afar, many people were out and about, basking in the sunshine and Mount Arash was standing dominant in the background.

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The River Oi and Mountainous backdrop

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Near the entrance of the park

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Another photo of the park from a different angle

We crossed a bridge (allowing for both cars and pedestrians) to reach the other side of the river, where the main Arashiyama café/shop promenade was present. We found the Bamboo Path very quickly, owing to my friend recognising the Mandarin character for Bamboo (apparently the same or similar to the Japanese one) and following the relevant signs. Though busy (as was to be expected) the bamboos were abundant and spectacular. Walking through the path, with the light peeping through the tall stalks and emerald leaves, was beautiful.

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Note that everything in Arashiyama shuts down by 4.30/5pm. I felt it prudent to mention this at this point because we planned to return to the Bamboo Path later on, when it had quietened down, but when we returned, it was pitch black and the central Arashiyama area was virtually empty. We therefore decided to head back to the train station instead.

But I digress, back to the path- we passed a temple called the Tenryu-ji temple (which translates to the Sky Dragon temple) and my friend said that this sounded promising. So once we completed the Bamboo Path (and came across a beautiful and largely ignored landscape a bit further down from the path) we doubled back on ourselves and entered the temple gardens.

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The largely ignored landscape at the end of the path

The gardens were pretty- full of a variety of trees (all with Wooden name plaques informing the visitor of breed) but did pale into comparison when thinking about Zenrin-ji Temple (see the Finding #Zen-rinji blog post for more information).

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An example of a wooden plaque giving information about the trees

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Some of the trees in the Tenryu-ji Temple Gardens

Nonetheless, we found a very charming wishing pond full of coins and decorated with stone frogs, and right by the temple building, a large lake landscape which was gorgeous (and provided absolute justification as to why Tenryu-ji gardens are a world heritage site).

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The wishing pond                                               A temple building

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The lake at the end of the gardens

There are two slightly cheeky things about the attraction to note; Firstly, it costs 500 yen to enter the gardens and an extra 100 yen for the temple (which you have to pay separately). You can see into the temple from when you are viewing the lake, and since the temple itself wasn’t world heritage (just the gardens were) we decided against this (being the budget travellers that we are). Secondly, this was the only place I found that was charging 100 yen for toilet roll (that’s why tissues in a rucksack/handbag are such an important tool). With the amount of tourism the temple was getting, I felt this charge was a bit unnecessary.

Next we went to Arashiyama station (different to the Arashiyama Hankyu JR station we disembarked at) which was a tourist attraction in its own right. This was the prettiest train station I’ve ever seen, with a walkway called the Path of Kimonos next to it, which consisted of kimono patterned pillars in red, pink, purple and orange lining the pathway. At the end of the Pathway was the Pond of Dragon, whereby:

“Wishes are granted if the dragon that landed in Arashiyama is prayed to. If you immerse your hands in the water springing from Atago, your heart will be filled with peace and you will be lead to happiness”.

So I did (being the superstitious type that I am, but also because I thought the sentiment of the water feature was nice) while my friend amusedly abstained.

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The train station                                                  The Path of Kimonos

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Holding water in the Pond of Dragon

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The descriptive sign next to the pond

We got hungry so I hunted for something to eat and… I failed (as was the norm in Japan at times). But my friend had a meat filled steamed bun, which he enjoyed, and I was in too good spirits to let the lack of vegetarian food get my mood down.

We browsed some shops, where I picked up a larger travel sized purse and we collectively looked at some souvenirs made from bamboo wood (nice, but a tad overpriced). We ate at an Italian restaurant called Akamanma that evening (just a bit further down from the main promenade of shops and cafes). The pasta was okay, but note that there are only two vegetarian options from a vast menu and the food is overpriced for a) what it is and b) the portion size. Nonetheless it filled us up. Walking back across Arashiyama, most of the district had been plunged into darkness bar a few lights, twinkling in the distance. It is definitely a place for the day as it sleeps by early evening but we didn’t mind- we’d covered a lot of ground that day. I found the place to be amazing, somewhere that set a very high benchmark for subsequent day trips we did from that point onwards. If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, hop on a train there. I don’t think you’ll regret it 🙂